Enbridge has made investments in cleaner energy sources, such as hydrogen, but those efforts are dwarfed by the company's push to develop infrastructure for methane-heavy natural gas across Ontario. Illustration by Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal / The Local

This story is part of our “Green* Economy” issue, a collaboration between The Local and The Narwhal.

Across Ontario, there are municipalities that want natural gas and don’t have it. Others have it, but crave a future less dependent on fossil fuels.

The common denominator is Enbridge, an energy behemoth that wants to keep both kinds of Ontario municipalities on its balance sheet.

But their relationship is increasingly complicated.

For more than 70 years, the $50-billion Calgary-based private company has held a monopoly on natural gas distribution in Ontario. Enbridge delivers the methane-heavy fuel—one of Ontario’s cheapest and last remaining fossil fuel-based sources of energy—through its network of pipelines that crisscross the province, heating three-quarters of homes.

But the onset of the climate emergency—and the need to move away from fossil fuels—has posed an existential threat to Enbridge, the likes of which it has never experienced. Just as mobile phones replaced the landline, cheap energy from wind, water, and sun threaten to replace natural gas and other fossil fuels that create greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate global heating.

“Enbridge is fighting for its survival,” Jay Shepherd, an energy lawyer, said in an interview. “They’re in this sort of death spiral. The people in Enbridge understand that Enbridge is not going to look the way it looks today 10 or 20 years from now.”

The company is doing everything possible to delay the inevitable, Shepherd said. This includes small investments in cleaner energy sources that are still being developed and evaluated, like hydrogen and “renewable” natural gas, which is methane captured from organic waste. But it mostly means doubling down on natural gas infrastructure at the local level.

Enbridge has long tried to influence towns and cities use natural gas and has been publicly asking councils across Ontario to support its expansion plans. Photo: Carrie Davis / The Narwhal / The Local

Since the beginning of the year, Enbridge Gas, the company’s natural gas subsidiary, has been publicly asking local councils across Ontario—in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Kingston, Guelph, Whitby, Niagara Region, Grey Highlands, Durham, Severn, Prince Edward County, and dozens more—to support its natural gas expansion plans for the rest of this decade. That’s the same decade within which many of these municipalities have committed to achieving significant climate action. Enbridge has long tried to influence towns and cities to stay on or expand their use of natural gas, but its latest efforts seem like a full-scale defense of a fossil-dependent business model, even as both sentiments and technologies shift elsewhere.

To understand this latest approach and the recent history of Enbridge’s influence, The Narwhal and The Local reviewed several hundred pages of documents filed at the Ontario Energy Board and letters sent to local councils. Over the last three months, we also spoke to 22 people who work in and with Ontario’s energy sector. That includes five former Enbridge employees and multiple municipal staff, local councillors, energy officials, and lawyers. Almost all requested confidentiality, citing fear of professional retribution as their ongoing work includes continued engagement with Enbridge. Because of this, we have used single pseudonyms throughout this story for those who asked not to be named publicly. The Narwhal and The Local have verified each person’s identity and position.

Collectively, their firsthand accounts and analysis illustrate the lengths Enbridge has gone to in order to boost natural gas. The company has financially supported municipalities in developing energy plans and sponsored events such as town halls and council meetings to discuss them with the public. It has given municipalities money to help research new energy solutions, and paid for studies and marketing material that stress the importance of natural gas. And, according to sources, the company has made attempts to silence and stymie opposition from municipal staff and environmental experts across Ontario.

More from "The Green* Economy"

Read more stories about GTA businesses that could make or break our environmental goals.

Read More

In one example found in filings at the Ontario Energy Board, Enbridge tried to discredit criticisms made by officials at the City of Ottawa—which has an energy transition plan that requires it to move away from natural gas to achieve net zero—about the company’s lack of meaningful municipal engagement on an aging pipeline. In detailed arguments, the company said the city’s submissions were “incomplete or inaccurate” and “strategically filed” to impact Enbridge’s expansion plans. Enbridge told the board it had “actively participated, in good faith, on a number of fronts” with the City of Ottawa to “further progress on energy and climate change issues.” (The board sided with the city and denied the project.)

In a statement to The Narwhal and The Local, Enbridge spokesperson Leanne McNaughton added the company “work[s] closely” with over 312 Ontario municipalities “prioritizing their energy needs and collaborating to advance their climate-action goals.”

“Our unwavering commitment to these stakeholders is demonstrated through various activities such as sharing crucial information, conducting impactful meetings to discuss projects and presenting at municipal councils,” McNaughton wrote.

On the surface, much of what sources described to The Narwhal and The Local falls within the realm of lobbying—a regular practice in Canada’s political system that sees business, special-interest, and advocacy organizations attempt to solicit or sway policies and practices. But often, private interests are in deep tension with the public interest. In Enbridge’s case, the question is whether pursuing profits from the continued use of fossil fuels aligns with domestic and international pledges to limit global warming and mitigate the worst impacts of the climate emergency.

“They’re a big company; big companies have power,” Shepherd said. And in his opinion, “they’re fighting a losing battle. But it may well be true that they can stave it off for a little while by being very effective as lobbyists.”

“But in the end, individual people—your kids, my kids, the next generation—are going to make choices and these choices are not going to be fossil fuels,” he said. Enbridge, Shepherd said, is “just buying time.”

And its clock has started ticking a lot faster of late—a countdown bringing Enbridge’s relationship with municipalities to the fore.

“I think Enbridge is scared,” Henry, a staff member at an urban Ontario municipality, said in an interview. “Enbridge refers to the Ontario gas distribution business as their ATM. Right now, everybody is on gas, but soon people will start going off it. That’ll start to bite [Enbridge] because all of a sudden what’s profitable will no longer be.”

“And whether we like it or not, we’re all going to feel Enbridge’s pain at least for a little while.”

Ontario municipalities caught between energy regulator, energy company and energy minister

In Ontario, all energy companies are obligated to work with both municipalities and the Ontario Energy Board to deliver electricity and heat to residents. The board is an independent regulator mandated to ensure the natural gas and electricity industries are operating in a way that is financially responsible and in the public interest.

Enbridge has to secure agreements with a city or town before building new natural gas infrastructure. Such accords span decades and give Enbridge leave to construct and maintain pipelines, and share its costs with municipalities and residents alike.

“Enbridge is good at giving money here and there to keep relationships sweeter,” Henry said. “Anything under $100,000 here or there is chump change for them, with big benefits: it gets them goodwill and stops municipalities from being pointy-headed.”

One way Enbridge secures these agreements is by sending a specialized team to municipalities to engage in discussions about, and negotiate and advocate for, natural gas. This team falls under Enbridge’s conservation department, but its job is to ensure the expansion of natural gas. “These Enbridge employees are strongly incented to get results,” William, a former municipal energy official, said in an interview.

“[Enbridge is] in hyperdrive because they’re scared for their life.”

According to business plans filed at the Ontario Energy Board in 2021, Enbridge set up this team in 2020 with an administrative budget of $1.66 million “in an effort to further support” a growing number of municipalities that were creating or implementing climate change and energy plans. Enbridge told the board that almost a quarter of the province’s 444 municipalities were “seeking the kind of leadership and financial support from Enbridge Gas that would lead to broader and deeper partnerships to lower energy costs and reduce energy use and [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

To build these relationships, Enbridge began delivering information sessions on how to create plans that would achieve climate targets. It helped municipalities collect data and test new technology. And the company provided funding for local governments to “offset” the costs of creating and implementing climate and energy plans.

“Recognizing the essential role of municipalities in shaping and advancing climate action, Enbridge Gas has established a dedicated team of specialists to support these initiatives,” McNaughton said in an email to The Narwhal and The Local when asked about the team. “We are committed to emission reduction action.”

Over the next few years, the company expanded the team in size and budget. In 2022, the company posted a job for a “senior advisor, municipal energy solutions,” who would need to “advocate for the continued use of natural gas and its role as a low carbon option in the development of municipal energy plans”—even though the use of the methane-heavy fuel contributes significantly to global heating. The advisor would also have to “communicate internally key threats identified through interactions with municipalities and assist in developing solutions to offset these threats.”

“Once you get a community tied into an agreement, they could never leave,” William said.

“It became a de facto process that muted any municipal fights over the need for natural gas,” George, a former Enbridge employee, said in an interview. In fact, the only way a community can exit such an agreement is if the Ontario Energy Board, an independent regulator, allows it.

To date, the board has not done so.

Last year, the southwestern Ontario municipality of Leamington was denied when it asked the board not to renew its agreement with Enbridge for another 20 years. Documents show the municipality said it was “being forced” by Enbridge to enter a new agreement it “objects” to, which required Leamington to bear a significant portion of the cost of relocating gas systems, particularly when needed to maintain municipal drains. Enbridge, which has been the sole gas supplier for Leamington since 1889, countered that if the relocation costs weren’t split upfront, the company would have to pass them on to consumers. Because of this, the board decided the agreement had to be renewed “in the public interest.” Leamington lost an attempt to appeal in March.

Enbridge’s plans to generate more than $16 billion in revenue by 2030 rely on continuing to charge Ontario homeowners for new connections to natural gas. Photo by Carrie Davis / The Narwhal / The Local

For Enbridge, these long-term agreements are important because the company only makes money when buildings are connected to its infrastructure. And it makes money whether or not gas is used. “If they have a connection that is only used during a blackout once every 10 years but sees the user pay monthly costs for that connection … well, the value of that is still high,” Phillip, an energy utility official, said in an interview. “The value becomes diminished when you start to tell people there is an alternative and they don’t need natural gas infrastructure. If you’re not expanding in the utility world, you’re dying.”

That’s the blow the Ontario Energy Board delivered to Enbridge last fall.

In October 2022, the board took on what would become one of the largest and most consequential cases in its 64-year history: a review of Enbridge Gas’s plans up to 2030 in light of the energy transition needed to curb climate impacts. To ensure fairness and fiscal responsibility, energy companies submit business plans to the board for review every few years.

In Enbridge’s case, the board spoke to nearly three dozen stakeholders and reviewed thousands of pages about Enbridge’s plans to generate more than $16 billion in revenue, much of which would be made from continuing to charge Ontario homeowners for new connections to natural gas.

“In the end, individual people—your kids, my kids, the next generation—are going to make choices and these choices are not going to be fossil fuels.”

As part of its review, the board questioned whether or not natural gas should be the assumed future of energy in Ontario—and decided otherwise. In a stunning decision released last December, two out of three commissioners on the review panel said the company could no longer charge Ontario homeowners for new natural gas connections. The board argued that since climate commitments would render gas pipelines useless, it was unfair to charge customers for infrastructure with an expiry date. The board said these costs would have to be paid upfront by developers or Enbridge itself.

The decision shook the entire industry. A mere 15 hours after its release, the Doug Ford government vowed to overrule the independent Ontario Energy Board with legislation that would allow Enbridge to charge customers for new hookups for 40 more years. The province also pledged to weaken the board’s oversight power. Legislation cementing both moves passed last month.

By Enbridge’s estimate, the board’s decision could have wiped out $300 million of revenue this year and billions of dollars over the next five years—an impact government staff weighed heavily in internal discussions.

It could also have effectively ended the era of natural gas in Ontario.

Enbridge Gas responds to regulator ruling with missives to municipalities

George, the former Enbridge employee, said the Ontario Energy Board “went for the jugular” with its decision to shift the cost of natural gas hookups off of consumers—and the company responded in kind.

“Enbridge has been lobbying for itself for forever. Of course, as a business, it wants to keep it going,” George said. “The board’s decision meant Enbridge now had to fight for its life.”

Weeks after the decision, Enbridge Gas began sending city councils across Ontario letters asking that they support the Ford government’s legislation—a move one rural deputy mayor called “a blanket public relations effort.”

“Enbridge Gas consistently provides municipalities across Ontario with detailed updates on several items that may impact energy services provided to their communities,” company spokesperson McNaughton said in an email. These updates included information about Enbridge’s board submissions and the government’s legislation to overrule the board, she said, “recognizing the impact of these developments on the future of Ontario’s economic development, competitiveness and emissions reduction goals.”

The Narwhal and The Local reviewed a dozen of Enbridge’s letters to municipalities, which were publicly posted as part of city council agendas. Each followed a template, slightly amended to reference local energy challenges and plans. Each was also tailored to include Enbridge’s local investments, which support energy expansions but also “greenhouses, grain dryers, industrial parks and any new businesses or housing developments seeking access to natural gas,” according to one letter sent to several municipalities.

“Enbridge is effectively using municipalities as pawns,” Kent Elson, an energy lawyer who represents advocacy group Environmental Defence at the Ontario Energy Board, said in an interview. “They are using municipalities to impact policy and using municipal residents to grow their system…And they’re in hyperdrive because they’re scared for their life.”

“I think Enbridge is scared…Enbridge refers to the Ontario gas distribution business as their ATM. Right now, everybody is on gas, but soon people will start going off it.”

In its letters to rural municipalities, which often have an insufficient energy supply and limited energy expertise on staff, Enbridge reiterated each community’s need for natural gas. In April, Enbridge wrote to Grey Highlands, for example, and promised to deliver an expanded gas pipeline in return for the council’s support before the board. According to Geoff Shea, West Grey councillor, “the letter had this tone of aggression, which I thought was inappropriate.”

“It didn’t seem level-headed or responsible,” he said in an interview.

“Traditionally, having natural gas come to your town means your community is being taken more seriously by the powers-to-be because it’s a thing grown-up towns have,” Shea said. “But [in the letter], they made it seem like we were lucky to be getting natural gas. They were acting with a sense of entitlement.”

In its letter to Toronto city council, Enbridge argued the Energy Board’s December 2023 decision would increase the cost of housing and put aspects of the city’s climate plan “at risk”—even though the same plan demands the city rapidly move its buildings away from natural gas.

“It was the first instance I’ve seen where a utility has weighed in, in that nature,” James Nowlan, the City of Toronto’s executive director of environment and climate change since 2022, said in an interview. “But it did not influence our work or our assessment of [the Ford government’s legislation overruling the energy board] or our advice to council.”

“We have a difference of general opinion with Enbridge,” Nowlan said. He explained that the city does work closely with Enbridge, which sits on Toronto’s climate advisory group and provides natural gas to many residents. But the city is also heavily focused on moving away from natural gas, something mandated for new buildings in Toronto’s net-zero strategy, called TransformTO.

“We have expressed all this to Enbridge,” Nowlan said. “They understand the city’s position. We just have differences in views of what our city’s energy transition looks like.”

Several municipal sources who spoke to The Narwhal and The Local noted the same disconnect. Enbridge’s message to municipalities after the Ontario Energy Board tried to prevent new connection charges was a wide-ranging, pointed insistence that natural gas is still great and still needed.

The Ontario Energy Board tried to prevent Enbridge from charging customers for new connections to natural gas, but was overruled by the Doug Ford government. Photo by Carrie Davis / The Narwhal / The Local

“The stakes are high,” Maline Giridhar, vice-president of regulatory and business development at Enbridge Gas, wrote in the letter to municipalities. “It is critical to realize that the affordability of a system that ensures Ontarians have the heat they require, and that businesses have the energy they need is in jeopardy by the [Ontario Energy Board’s] decision.”

Giridhar reminded municipalities how cheap and useful natural gas is—“it provides twice the energy of electricity at a quarter of the cost on an annual basis”—without mentioning its harms. She wrote the company is “committed to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” without offering details on how. She also said the loss of revenue from the board’s decision “will lead to difficult investment choices”—which seemed like a reminder of the financial support municipalities receive from Enbridge for energy planning and other community-based support. The Narwhal and The Local asked an Enbridge spokesperson what it meant by “difficult investment choices” but did not receive a response.

“Constraining access to natural gas through a reduction in capital will significantly limit the future development of essential energy infrastructure vital to Ontario’s economy, from which all Ontarians benefit,” Giridhar wrote in the letter. “As local leaders across the province, your voice matters, and we encourage you to take action.”

Lawyer Shepherd reiterates several times that, unlike most Ontario energy utilities, the energy giant is a private company. “We should not expect Enbridge to act in the public interest. That’s not what they do,” he said. “They act in the interests of their shareholders. And if they need to be a bully to do that, they will absolutely be a bully.”

Several local officials who spoke to The Narwhal and The Local confidentially were quick to note that Enbridge’s lobbying—aggressive and influential as it might be—does not eliminate municipalities’ agency to make decisions about the future of energy in their community. A new report released this month shows that between 2013 and 2022, Ontario saw the largest increase among provinces of residents paying for natural gas expansion. But there may be a shift happening. Many cities and towns, starting with Hamilton in February, have passed resolutions supporting the Ontario Energy Board’s decision and opposing the provincial government’s move against it. On the other hand, several big rural municipalities still seeking natural gas have voted the opposite. Underlining this split is a universal concern about providing affordable electricity to Ontarians, particularly for home heating, while also considering the climate, cost and energy concerns of future generations.

The letters have cast a slight chill on local energy planning, sources say. Where there was once a lot of chatter about moving away from natural gas in Ontario, there are now whispers. Insiders say Enbridge’s power maintains a stronghold—for now, anyway.

“Our voice does matter,” said one rural deputy mayor. “But it’s hard to be heard when the voice at the other side of the table is an energy giant worth billions of dollars.”

“We can’t not talk to them,” the deputy mayor added. “It’s more challenging than saying ‘thank you, next.’ We have to maintain an ongoing relationship and discussion because, for better or worse, Enbridge is going to be here for a long time even if their role is the distribution of something we’re trying to eliminate from our cities as fast as possible.”